Be sure you’re legally married

These days, a growing number of couples are opting out of traditional church weddings and are choosing instead to be married in less formal ceremonies, often presided over by a friend or relative rather than a priest or rabbi.

That’s fine if that’s what the couple wants – but the problem is that some such weddings might not be technically valid under state law. A couple could live together for years assuming they’re legally married, and only find out otherwise much later when something unfortunate happens, such as a death or a divorce.

Typically, a valid marriage requires a license, witnesses, and solemnization by someone with the legal authority to do so. “Legal authority” is the problem. In many states, this means either a justice of the peace or a person who has been ordained by a recognized religion.

Many people believe that they can perform weddings if they’ve been ordained by the Universal Life Church, an Internet “religion” that has no particular belief system but that allows people to fill out an online form and quickly become “ordained.” The ULC’s website proudly touts that its “ministers” can perform weddings. But just because something appears on a website doesn’t mean it’s necessarily true.

For instance, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that someone who was “ordained” by the ULC is not a real minister and doesn’t have any legal authority to perform a valid wedding. Courts in a number of other states have also rejected “marriages” solemnized by someone with an online or mail-order ordination.

What could happen to a person if they’re not legally married?

One problem is that if they ever decide to get divorced, they might find that they’re not protected by the divorce laws. They might have no more rights than someone who merely cohabited with another person for many years.

People could live together for years assuming they’re legally married, only to find out otherwise when something unfortunate happens, such as a death or a divorce.

Another problem is that if they signed a prenuptial agreement, it might be worthless if it wasn’t followed up with a legally binding “nuptial.” Prenups are signed in contemplation of marriage, and they’re usually meaningless if there isn’t a marriage. In one case, an appeals court in New York ruled that a prenuptial agreement was legally unenforceable because the subsequent “nuptials” were performed by a ULC minister.

People with suspect weddings could also find themselves at a loss if a spouse dies, especially if he or she dies without a will. For instance, in Mississippi, the spouse of a deceased person is automatically entitled to a certain percentage of his or her estate. In one case, a deceased man’s family went to court to deprive his wife of her share of the estate, claiming that she wasn’t really his “wife” because they had been married by a ULC minister.

The Mississippi Supreme Court ultimately decided that the marriage was legal…but the wife had to battle all the way to the state’s highest court to get her share of the estate.

People who aren’t technically married could face all sorts of other problems. They might not be able to share in a deceased spouse’s pension or 401(k). They might not have the right to own real estate as “tenants by the entireties” and thus protect themselves from creditors. They might not be able to sue and recover damages if their spouse is injured or killed. And they could face dire problems with income, gift and estate taxes.

One of the most interesting cases involved a man who was actually saved by having a “defective” marriage. James Lynch was charged with bigamy, but managed to escape punishment by claiming that his first marriage wasn’t “real” since it was performed by a ULC minister. The North Carolina Supreme Court agreed that the first marriage was invalid, and threw out the charges.

Afterward, the state legislature stepped in and passed a law declaring that ULC weddings that had been performed before the law was passed would be considered valid…although weddings performed by ULC ministers after the law was passed were not protected by the law.

In Pennsylvania, judges have issued conflicting decisions on whether a ULC ordination is good enough.

In Utah, the state legislature passed a law not only invalidating Internet ordinations, but also making it a crime (punishable by up to three years in jail!) for someone to perform a wedding if he or she had only an online ordination. A federal court later struck down this law as unconstitutional, saying it was irrational because it applied to online ordinations but not those that were obtained by fax or over the phone.

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